Committee proposes new measures to reduce sickness absenteeism

In November 2006, the high-level committee of social partner representatives set up to discuss and recommend measures to reduce sickness absenteeism in Norwegian working life published its report. The report recommends leaving the national sick pay scheme unchanged and underlines the importance of swift action in situations where employees become sick. It also recommends that re-entry into employment is best facilitated through cooperation between the employer, the employee, the medical profession, as well as public regulatory authorities.

On 6 November 2006, the committee of social partner representatives published its recommendations to reduce sickness absenteeism (in Norwegian, 437Kb PDF) in Norwegian working life. As a result of the committee’s work, there will be no changes to the existing national sick pay scheme. The committee’s recommendations will serve as a basis for a proposal to be put before the Norwegian parliament (Stortinget) in the near future.

The proposal for new measures came as a result of increasing absenteeism rates among workers in Norway. In September 2006, due to the continued increase in absenteeism from work, the government announced its intention to change the present sick pay scheme, which would place an increased financial burden on the employer in relation to the costs of long-term sickness absence (NO0609019I). This step provoked outrage among the social partner organisations, all of which saw the initiative as a breach of the agreement for an inclusive working life, referred to as the so-called IA-agreement (NO0110107F, NO0601101N).

Proposal for new measures

The committee was set up and chaired by the Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and had representation from the leaders of all the main employee and employer organisations in Norway. It was given the mandate to discuss the government’s proposed changes to the sick pay scheme in conjunction with the social partner organisations, and also to come up with alternative measures that could contribute to a reduction in the sickness absence rate.

As a result, the committee proposes a number of measures to improve the current situation regarding absenteeism, including:

  • Increasing employer responsibility with regard to monitoring absenteeism. This measure includes developing plans for re-entry into employment (within six weeks of absence), establishing areas for dialogue, and documenting measures implemented to adjust the workplace to the needs of sick employees. Ideally, employee representatives and health personnel should also be involved in this work.
  • Improving public access to health and rehabilitation services with the aim of getting people on sick pay back into employment. A sum of NOK 631 million (about €77.6 million as of 8 December 2006) from the state budget has been set aside for this purpose.
  • Increasing state funding and support for workplace adjustment measures. Up to NOK 150 million (€18.4 million) has been set aside as part of the state budget for this purpose, but such funds will only be available to so-called IA companies, i.e. companies that have entered into IA-agreements.
  • Closer control and monitoring of failure to follow up on employees, which involves a strengthening of the Labour Inspectorate (Arbeidstilsynet) and the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Organisation (Arbeids- og velferdsetaten, NAV). A total of NOK 75 million (€9.2 million) has been set aside for this task.

The expected outcome of the new measures should reduce the sickness absence rate by 2.5%. The estimated immediate cost of the proposals amounts to around NOK 1 billion (€123 million). Overall, however, the measures are expected to cut state costs in relation to sick pay by NOK 2.5 billion (€307 million). This was also the cost saving figure presented in connection with the government’s original proposal to amend the sick pay scheme.

Views of social partners

On the whole, all of the parties involved in the process are happy with the results of the committee’s work and the measures proposed. The social partner organisations are pleased to see that no changes will be made to the national sick pay scheme at the present time. The employers, in particular, welcome the new measures. The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) argues that the main priority for them is to prevent placing the extra financial burden associated with sickness absence on employers. The organsiation considers that the most recent proposals have strengthened the basis for further cooperation on reducing sickness absence through the IA-agreement. However, NHO also emphasises that the national regulatory authorities, such as NAV, also have a great responsibility in providing efficient coordination of support services for companies.

Commentary

The high-level committee was expected to find a solution to the sick pay problem, which would lead to a withdrawal of the government’s original proposal for changes to the national sick pay scheme. Opposition from the social partner organisations made it difficult for the government to carry out its recommendation to make employers take more responsibility for financing absence from work due to sickness. What seems clear following the controversy is that the government may not take unilateral action to change the national sick pay scheme. The solutions found by the committee underline the introduction of swift measures in situations where employees become sick, and that re-entry into employment is best facilitated through cooperation between the employer, the employee, the medical profession, as well as public regulatory authorities.

Håvard Lismoen, Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research

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